By Elaine Woo, Times Staff Writer
Fred Diament, a retired Los Angeles clothing manufacturer whose lifelong dedication to Holocaust education was forged during five hellish years as a prisoner in World War II concentration camps, died of complications of pneumonia Nov. 13 at UCLA Medical Center. He was 81.
A German Jew of Polish descent, Diament was 15 when he was arrested by the Nazis at the outset of the war in 1939.
He was sent to a concentration camp near Berlin before being assigned to Auschwitz, where his father was beaten to death by guards and one of his brothers — a member of the camp's underground resistance — was hanged. It was an event stirringly recalled in Nobel Peace Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel's autobiographical novel "Night."
Diament aided the resistance himself, and survived the death march out of Auschwitz in 1945 before moving to Palestine. He fought for Israel's independence as a member of the Haganah, the underground military that became the Israeli army, and also participated in the Sinai campaign of 1956.
He emigrated to the United States in 1959 and eventually prospered in business, but vowed to preserve the memory of what has been called history's worst crime. He often spoke of his wartime ordeals to school and community groups and helped found the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which opened in 1993.
"In our eyes, he was a hero," said fellow Holocaust survivor Sig Halbreich, 95, who met Diament at the Sachsenhausen camp in Berlin and, as a resistance leader, helped protect him at Auschwitz. "In spite of his youth, he was often beaten. But he never gave up."
Like Halbreich, Diament was among the first Jews to be sent to the death camps. This made him what writer Primo Levi, an important chronicler of the Holocaust, called a "low number," a reference to the identification numbers the Nazis tattooed on prisoners' arms.
"Freddy lived through not one or two winters but five winters," said Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum, who worked with Diament on the Holocaust museum. "Even among the survivors of the worst, that draws an enormous amount of respect."
Diament was born in the coal-mining town of Gelsen Kirschen [Gelsenkirchen], Germany. His parents owned a furniture store, but it was destroyed by Nazi hoodlums during Kristallnacht, the campaign of violence and intimidation launched against German Jews in November 1938.
He, his father and brother were sent to Sachsenhausen, where he was forced to load emaciated corpses into a truck for disposal. Later, at Auschwitz, he was assigned to the Nazi commandant as a personal servant. His position allowed him to eavesdrop on the commandant's conversations and share with the resistance any information that might aid his comrades.
"We formed a secret underground, and he brought all the news daily to us," Halbreich said of Diament. "He was a very important person to us."
On Oct. 10, 1944, three gallows were erected on the camp's parade grounds. That night, more than 10,000 prisoners were ordered to assemble before them as rain fell on their shaven heads. Three prisoners were marched out under the harsh glare of searchlights. They were Jank Grossfeld, a medical student from Krakow; Nathan Weissman, a law student from Lodz; and Leo Yehuda Diament, Fred Diament's 22-year-old brother.
They had been caught trying to make contact with Polish partisans who could help organize a mass breakout from Auschwitz. For six weeks before this day, they had been held in Auschwitz's notorious Block 10, the torture bunker, but had given away nothing of their plan.
Leo Diament was the last of the three to be killed. Just before the hangman yanked the crate from under his feet, he cried out: "Courage, comrades! We are the last victims. Long live liberty!"
That night, Wiesel wrote in "Night," "the soup tasted of corpses."
Although death was a daily occurrence ("How many times we did wake up in the morning, discovering with horror that we slept next to a dead man," Fred Diament wrote in an article years later), hangings were rare. Diament could not bear to witness his brother's execution, so Halbreich, a pharmacist by trade, took him to the camp infirmary where he worked and kept him there until the hangings were over.
According to Diament's daughter, Elana Diament Cooperman, this tragedy was "the most crucial event in my father's life." From that moment forward, she said, he "always tried so very hard to live up to the legacy of these three heroes of Auschwitz," whose deaths came just three months before the camp was liberated.
In the bitter winter of 1944-45, as Soviet troops advanced on Poland, Diament was among the thousands of starving, ill-clad prisoners forced on the death march from Auschwitz to Germany.
Without food or water, many did not survive. Stragglers were shot, and the weak were left to die on the side of the road. In the confusion of a Soviet air raid, however, Diament escaped, eventually making his way to Czechoslovakia and freedom.
In the months after the war, he became a recruiter for the Haganah and found his sister, Elly, who had spent the war at Theresienstadt, the ghetto camp near Prague. His parents and three of his four brothers were dead.
He met his future wife, Ilse, also a camp survivor, on the ship that took them to Israel in 1945. She survives him, along with their four children, Elana, Steve, Amalia and Jeff; and seven grandchildren.
In Israel, Diament helped organize one of the first kibbutzes for Holocaust survivors. He returned to Germany several times to testify against his former captors in the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals. His testimony helped convict six of the most sadistic Nazi guards at Sachsenhausen and Auschwitz.
In 1959, he moved to Los Angeles to join his sister and surviving brother, Saul, who had settled here.
He entered the garment industry and at age 36, with a family and a full-time job, resumed the education that had been halted by the Nazis. Over the next 13 years, he took night classes and earned a bachelor's degree and an MBA from UCLA. He eventually rose to become CEO of a women's clothing company, Ernst Strauss.
A longtime resident of Studio City, he took an active role in many Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
He was twice president of the 1939 Club, one of the largest and oldest organizations of Holocaust survivors. In the early 1980s, he helped plan the World Gathering of Holocaust Survivors, which took place in Israel and the United States.
During this time Wiesel, a close friend who knew Diament at Auschwitz, recruited him to serve on the committee that helped determine the content and philosophy of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, of which Wiesel was founding chairman.
Described by Berenbaum as tenacious and full of life, even after suffering severe financial reversals in later years, Diament never passed up an opportunity to speak about the Holocaust publicly, especially to school groups. He showed students the number tattooed on his arm and choked back tears as he recounted the Nazis' brutality.
"We have an obligation to speak out against injustices when we see them," he told the Los Angeles Daily News a few years ago. "Otherwise, you're just … letting the hatred spread. Life is sacred. Once you forget that, there's no limit to the murder that can occur."